Zero-Cost Heroes

There are educators who have chosen to create free course materials. We call them "Zero-Cost Heroes."
Author: Kimberly D. Hoffman
Zero Cost Heroes of Open Education Week 2021

See our second cohort of Zero-Cost Heroes (Est. October 2021)

As part of Open Education Week 2021, librarians from the University of Rochester are joining forces with faculty and students to introduce our first-ever "Zero-Cost Heroes." These heroes are instructors and faculty who, for a number of reasons, have chosen to select or create course materials that are free for their students. Each day we'll be highlighting one hero, sharing their motivations for championing free course materials, how they've worked with librarians to make it happen, and what their students have to say about zero-cost materials.

Zero-Cost Heroes is part of an ongoing effort on behalf of River Campus Libraries (RCL) to ensure equity, access, and empowerment for all our students. See what else RCL has accomplished this year by reading about our ACT commitment or visiting our Open Education Services page, where you can view a number of presentations from our Open Educational Resources and Open Pedagogy workshop series.

Want to nominate someone as a Zero-Cost Hero? Email us at


Tuesday’s Hero: Dr. Nancy Chin, Public Health

Nancy Chin - Public Health

Saving costs by having electronic textbooks creates a more inclusive and supportive environment.

Dr. Nancy Chin sees access to free course materials as an issue of equity and inclusion. "Who are we omitting from courses and majors with associated higher costs?" She adds, "these students are at a terrible disadvantage." An added benefit is the convenience and perpetual access to digital materials, giving the students the ability to use modern tools of technology.

Nancy has worked with the Public Health librarian, Stephanie Barrett, to ensure the library has ebook licenses for the texts she uses in her courses. Stephanie also connects with students to instruct them on how to access these materials effectively and efficiently.

Chloe Jones, a Public Health and Microbiology double major, has taken several of Nancy's classes and is currently a teaching assistant for one of her courses. Chloe says, "Using the resources the library provides for students is a weight off my shoulders, and I'm sure for many other students too, because books are expensive. If we can save money anywhere books would be a great way to do that."




Wednesday's Hero: Dr. Julie Papaioannou, French

Julie Papaioannou - French

Julie aims to create classes & content where students

make it what they want it to become

Dr. Julie Papaioannou is keenly aware that language learning textbooks are notoriously expensive due to the need for interactivity. Over the coming year she has plans to “build a course text" developed by students. Beginning with four students in Fall 2020, Julie envisions a growing collection of open educational resources (OER) that can enhance language learning and eventually serve as the interactive materials students will use in her courses.

Through a Humanities for Life grant, Julie and her librarian partner, Kristen Totleben, plan to design a course whose materials are free of cost and whose major learning projects involve student development of OER.

Student Elizabeth Roe says, “I was excited about the idea of my work existing outside of the class and having a use other than obtaining a grade. Because I knew my work was going to be shared, it motivated me to ensure my presentation of the topic would be as comprehensive as possible."



Thursday's Hero: Dr. Jonathan Holz, Biology

Johnathan Holz, Biology

the adoption of OER can decrease students' costs while increasing text utilization and beneficial outcomes.

In 2019, Dr. Jon Holz (Biology) and Moriana Garcia (STEM librarian) collaborated so that BIOL 204: Principles of Human Physiology could move from a $150 textbook to a free OpenStax textbook. “Students will be able to access this textbook without cost to them. To me, that’s the most important element—the availability to the students and being able to use this resource to improve their outcomes.” The savings each semester for one class of 140 students is $21,000! Students also had the opportunity to create learning materials for the class, so they are authors and creators as well!

Moriana Garcia, the course librarian collaborated on the creative assignments and also found supplemental materials that the library could purchase or license. This meant that additional materials came at no cost to students.

Haley Cohen (class of 2020) said, "Nobody had to decide whether [the textbook] was worth it or not worth it...we could focus on learning the material rather than whether we could afford to buy a textbook."




Friday's Hero: Joshua Dubler, Political Science and Religion

Joshua Dubler, Political Science and Religion

COVID affords us the opportunity to do an ethical reset one notch in the direction of mutual care.

Josh Dubler's Political Science course, which he teaches alongside assistant instructor Precious Bedell, focuses on the history of mass incarceration in the United States while also thinking toward an abolitionist horizon. The pursuit of equity and justice are central themes in the course material, and they are also central to Josh's teaching philosophy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it especially evident that there are many inequities present within the classroom, including those related to the cost of course materials. In order to create a more accessible learning environment, Josh uses electronic reserves through the library and assigns books that are relatively low in cost. Many of the books that Josh assigns are written and published by political organizers who also aim to make their work financially accessible to readers.

The focus on accessibility and equity in his teaching should not be seen as remarkable, Josh says. Engaging with students compassionately and meeting them where they are should be at the center of all forms of teaching, and for him, this is one of the most rewarding aspects of his job.